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  • Repatriation and the Legacy of Colonialism in the Middle East
  • Salam Al Quntar

In 2002, the leading Arab media channel, Aljazeera, aired an episode of the program Top Secret (Sirrī lil-Ġāyah) presented by the well-known investigative reporter and TV host, Yosri Fouda. The episode was titled “Antiquities thieves: the Arab treasures in Western museums.”1 The episode marks a new phase of Arab media covering issues of heritage protection and repatriation of artifacts. The episode had four discussion points. The fourth point focused on the issue they termed “the plunder of our history,” a phrase often used in public Arab discourse to refer to the removal of cultural artifacts to the West.

In particular, the program focuses on the feeling of Arab or Muslim visitors to the British Museum when viewing “our stolen artifacts”: a feeling of anger and frustration, a physical reminder of a historic agony that still impacts Western–Middle Eastern relations today. They see artifacts as evidence of the resources exploited by the former colonial powers that resulted in an uneven distribution of wealth (Seymour 2004) between the affluent West and its former impoverished colonies. The analogy with oil is often heard in public Arab opinion, especially when discussing the scramble for Iraqi oil by international companies. Interestingly, Pollock and Lutz make the comparison between these claims of “international ownership” of Iraq’s oil and claims on its ancient past (Pollock and Lutz 1994: 270).

Thus, the complex issue of whether cultural artifacts in Western museums taken during the colonialist periods should remain or be returned to their place of origin continues to be a heated debate (Cuno 2008, Waxman 2008, Felch and Frammolino 2011). Is it appropriate to apply today’s legal and ethical standards to the practices of artifact removal in the past? And if so, where do we draw a line? Clearly, the 1970 UNESCO convention has not been satisfactory to more southern nations, countries like Greece or Italy included. But is acquiring artifacts as spoils of war not an ancient and “universal” practice? Should the Egyptian obelisks taken by the Romans two thousand years ago be returned from Italy to Egypt? Should the Naram-Sin stele (an ancient looted object discovered in Susa/Iran and taken by French archaeologists to the Louvre; Fig. 1) or the Hammurabi stele (Fig. 2) be returned to Iran or Iraq?

Archaeology, Nationalism and Colonialism in the Middle East

Archaeology in the Middle East developed alongside the progression of European colonialization. European archaeological exploration started with the Napoleon campaign to Egypt and reached a “golden age” of discoveries in the early part of the twentieth century. Acquiring artifacts from the Middle East went through four phases. The first was characterized as a period of easy plunder of sites prior to 1869, during which European and American museums sponsored many excavations with the goal of filling their galleries with prestige artifacts. Such were the Louvre-sponsored excavation at Khorsabad in 1842 and the British Museum-sponsored excavation at Nimrud in 1945 (Steele 2005: 46). The second phase was the regulated acquisition, with permits, by the Ottomans after 1969 (Bahrani, Çelik, and Eldem 2011) when the Ottomans also started acquiring and founded their own Imperial Museum. The third phase is exemplified by the system of artifacts division between foreign excavators and the local antiquities departments during European colonial control (Kersel 2010). Finally, during the fourth phase, Middle Eastern nation-states in the post-colonial era imposed a complete ban on artifact exports.

Nevertheless, European and American museums continued to acquire looted artifacts from the Middle East until their respective states ratified the 1970 UNESCO convention which prohibits the import, export, and transfer of ownership of cultural property. The convention, it has to be borne in mind, is not a retroactive legal framework for ownership of artifacts stolen from the Middle East prior to 1970.

The encroachment of Europeans into the Middle East that began with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, was followed by French colonization of Algeria in 1830 [End Page 19] and Italian colonization of Libya in 1911. After the defeat of the Ottoman Sultanate in World War I, the European powers divided up the...


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